Have you ever had a macaron? Macarons–not to be confused with macaroons, the soft coconut cookies that are delicious in their own right–are petite French sandwich cookies featuring crisp and chewy meringue shells and a soft inner filling that is usually chocolate ganache or buttercream. A number of my favorite food blogs have been featuring macarons lately, and their creative versions and beautiful pictures inspired me to try making my own.
The macaron shells can be made in a variety of flavors. Vanilla and chocolate are probably the most popular, since they pair nicely with a number of flavors, but bold nut versions like hazelnut and pistachio are also common, and pastry geniuses like Pierre Herme have created seemingly endless combinations. Some sound amazing (caramel fleur de sel and chocolate!) and some sound more…adventurous (chestnut and savory green tea?).
Initially it was a tough decision as to what macarons I should make for my first attempt. Finally, as I do when faced with all major decision in my life, I chose chocolate. I used a recipe by David Lebovitz, one of my favorite chef-bloggers, who has yet to concoct a dud dish. This is his recipe, with a few of my own modifications.
Chocolate Macaron Batter
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 2 ounces ground almonds (about 1/2 cup. I used roasted salted almonds because it was all that I had and it worked out fine)
- 3 tbsp cocoa powder
- 2 large egg whites, at room temperature*
- 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
To make the cookies, first preheat the oven to 375, and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Prepare a piping bag with a 1/2 inch tip or a blank coupler and set aside.
Place the powdered sugar and the ground almonds in a food processor and run it for about 10 seconds to break up any sugar lumps and to grind the almonds as fine as possible. Add the cocoa and pulse it a few times to distribute the cocoa.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, begin to beat the egg whites on medium speed. When they first start to hold soft peaks, add a spoonful of sugar. Continue to beat the whites and add the sugar gradually, spoonful by spoonful. After all the sugar is added, beat until the whites are very glossy and hold firm peaks, about two minutes. It is important that the whites are beaten to stiff peaks, but not overbeaten, as they can get crumbly and ruin the meringue texture.
Once the whites are whipped properly, add half the dry mixture and fold it in until almost incorporated. Add the second half of the dry ingredients and gently fold it in just until mixed. The batter will be stiff. I was worried that it was too stiff to pipe, so I gave it a few extra turns of the spatula. It should flow, but only very slowly.
Spoon the batter into the piping bag and pipe small 1″ circles onto the parchment paper. They spread a bit during baking, so space them about 3/4″ apart. The batter should flow enough to create a nice circle without a peaked top, but it shouldn’t puddle and ooze out of the circle shape. At this point, you can sprinkle the tops with any decorations or flavors you’d like. I decorated mine with candied cacao nibs, chopped hazelnuts, and royaltine wafers. Firmly rap the sheet on the counter to remove any air bubbles, and let the cookies sit at room temperature for 10 minutes to develop a slight shell on the outside.
Pop them in the preheated oven for 15-18 minutes, then remove from the oven and let cool. Sometimes macarons can be hard to remove from the parchment, so here is a great trick I learned. While the cookies are still warm, slightly dampen a tea towel. Slide the cookies on the parchment sheet off the baking sheet and onto the damp tea towel. The warmth from the cookies will create a little steam, which will release the cookies from the parchment easily. Genius!
One reason macarons are intimidating is because there are so many ways they can go wrong. The ground nuts can be too coarse, the whites can be overbeaten or underbeaten, and if it’s humid while you’re making them? Fuggedaboutit! Of course, if any of these things happen, you will still have a cookie of some sort, but it won’t have the classic macaron shape and characteristics. I felt intense pressure to make perfect macarons, so I hovered around the oven as they were baking, checking their progress every two minutes. “Feet! They have feet!” I finally shouted triumphantly, causing my husband to wonder if the day-old egg whites had had a Frankensteinian effect on my cookies.
But no, I was simply referring to the ruffled bottom of the cookies, commonly called the “feet.” The perfect macaron has a smooth, shiny domed top and a perfectly proportioned “foot.” The anatomy of a macaron is such:
The cookies thus successfully executed, it was time to turn my attention to the filling. Since my philosophy regarding all things chocolate is “more is more,” I knew I wanted to do some sort of ganache, but instead of making a plain chocolate ganache, I decided to use some hazelnut-flavored chocolate to make a sort of homemade Nutella spread. However, I thought I should also have a non-chocolate option in case chocolate-on-chocolate was too intense. I had some sweetened condensed milk in my refrigerator leftover from a candy project, so I decided to make dulce de leche.
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 3 ounces finely chopped gianduja chocolate (hazelnut-flavored chocolate)
- 1.5 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until it simmer and has bubbles around the edges–do not let it boil. Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and let it sit for one minute to soften the chocolate. Whisk the mixture until it is smooth and liquid. Cover the top of the ganache with cling wrap so it does not develop a skin. For best results, make one day ahead so it can firm up at room temperature. If made the same day, refrigerate the ganache for an hour or two until it is firm enough to spread, but not hard.
Dulce de Leche
All you need for this recipe is sweetened condensed milk. I usually make it the dangerous thrillseeker’s way, meaning I boil an unopened can of condensed milk in a saucepan full of water for about two hours. It’s considered unwise because there’s a chance the can might explode IF it’s not covered with water the whole time. To which I say, Bah! Any monkey can monitor boiling water and add more if it gets low!
However, if you are not a fan of endangering your life or your clean kitchen, you can use the wussy safe method. Spoon the condensed milk into a shallow bowl or pie tin, and cover it tightly with foil. Place it in a baking dish and fill it with hot water halfway up the sides of the bowl. Put the dish in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, stirring halfway through and adding more water if necessary. At the end you should have gorgeously thick, creamy dulce de leche. Stir in a pinch of sea salt to balance the sweet flavors, and you’re done!
Assembling the macarons is as simple as spreading filling on one cookie, and topping it with a second. I left some of my macarons undecorated, so I used these as the bottom. I recommend making these a day in advance. Immediately after they were made they were a bit too chewy for my taste, but the next day they were the perfect balance of crunchy shell and soft, chewy interior. They were great the following day as well, but three days after being made, their age began to catch up with them and they started tasting stale.
My favorite combination was probably the candied cacao nibs with the hazelnut ganache. The nibs added a crunchy, smoky dark chocolate flavor, while the ganache was sweeter with a pure hazelnut taste. Overall the experiment was a success, and I can’t wait to play around with different flavor combinations.